Yesterday, I was speaking with the school social worker about several students that we both "see" on our caseloads. Late in the conversation, she said something very interesting - something that encapsulates what I and many other teachers go through: "Sometimes," she exclaimed, "I feel like I am more invested in some of these kids than their parents are."
One of the travesties of the American education system is that we often wind up educating the students in spite of parental behavior that serves to undermine what we do. When I misbehaved as a child, my parents either (a) confer with my teacher(s) to reach an suitable consequence to be enforced at school and home; or (b) beat the teacher to the punch and take care of the problem themselves.
Today, we often deal with parents who (a) aren't present enough to hold much authority over their children, (b) are more concerned with being their kids friend and advocate than being a parent, or (c) don't see the value in their child's education and, thus, don't take anything we do seriously.
As an example of the first type of parent, there are simply too many examples. Each time we have "parent/teacher conference night" at the middle-class suburban school where I teach, I am lucky to have five parents show up the entire night. They are always the same faces that showed up the previous time, and generally are parents of the "average" kids, rather than the strugglers who really need the conference. (Does anyone see the correlation? The strugglers have parents who don't show up for conferences while the "average" performers' parents are involved? I wonder if this is causation?)
The second type of parent - the overly ffiendly parent - is also an unfortunately all too common occurence. Sonme parents have lost control of their kids completely, like a parent I dealt with last year who has a son that refuses to attend school and a ninth-grade daughter who has been pregnant twice. She confided in me several times, in tears, that she does not know what to do with her kids, that they do not listen to anything she says, and that she finds it increasinly difficult to try with them. Of course, my question is: what did this parent do when the children were young? I suspect that she put few, if any, demands on them, instilled in them that rules were flexible, and did very little follow through. If the children do not see the parents as an authority, then I doubt authority was established when they were young and malleable.
Some parents also think that the best way to "support" their kids is to advocate for them no matter what. An English teacher recounted for me the following incident: he gave a particular student an "F" on a test because she talked throughout the testing period, ignored frequent warnings that a failure to quiet down would result in a failing grade to no avail. Instead of talking productively with the teacher, the parent came into his office with "guns blazing": "Why the f... did you give my kid a failing grade?! You're going to retract the grade or else!" The teacehr tried to explain his position, but to no avail.
The problem, of course, with this parental approach is twofold: (a) in the parent's zeal to "support" their child, they are inadvertently doing damage by shielding them from normal accountability, and (b) the child learns to disrespect authority and to be adversarial simply by observing the parent's actions.
I have talked with many disgruntled teachers, and what many of them say they dislike the most is dealing with parents. Several have gone so far as to confide that parents are often ruder than students, and I am familiar with more than a few incidents where parents have brought teachers to tears in conferences.
Where did we lose the idea that parents first and foremost job is to be an authority in their child's life? Where did we begin adopting the idea that children do not need consistent rules, discipline, and guidelines? Children don't need more fiends; that's what the playground is for. From my vantage point, what children need the most is parents.